I haven’t read many of the early winners of the Booker Prize but ‘Hotel du Lac’ by Anita Brookner is one I have been meaning to read ahead of the Golden Man Booker Prize celebrations later this year. It tells the story of Edith Hope, a novelist of romantic fiction who is staying at a hotel near Lake Geneva in Switzerland by herself. A keen people-watcher, she has some unusual encounters with various eccentric guests including a rich widow Mrs Pusey and her daughter Jennifer, as well as Monica and her dog Kiki. However, it is Philip Neville, a divorced man also staying at the hotel who makes the most significant impression on the other guests. 

It is difficult to imagine this sort of book winning the Man Booker Prize today, and even at the time ‘Hotel du Lac’ won in 1984, it seems to have been viewed as a rather old-fashioned novel. Ironically, its apparent gentleness caused a fair amount of controversy – according to the Guardian, Brookner “half-apologised that her books are “quite nice but unimportant” and suggested it might have been better if Empire Of The Sun (by J. G. Ballard) had won in its place.” The setting of an off-season hotel makes for a melancholic atmosphere and it’s fair to say that not a great deal happens in terms of plot until the very end. Nevertheless, ‘Hotel du Lac’ is quietly subversive in its own way and underneath Brookner’s elegant turns of phrase lies some cutting humour and social analysis.

The behaviour of the guests and the roles of men and women in relationships are astutely observed by Edith, who we later learn is staying at the hotel more or less in exile after having an affair with a married man and breaking off her engagement at the last minute. Brookner’s portrayal of Edith’s spinsterhood is particularly interesting. She has a comfortable, satisfying and independent life but it is clear that the other guests immediately have certain expectations of Edith after discovering her status as an unmarried woman approaching middle-age, even though in many ways they experience far more loneliness themselves.

‘Hotel du Lac’ is a short and subtle novel, which reminded me of Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald, another Booker Prize winner from the same era which is very similar in style. I’m not sure if it is going to stand out enough to be shortlisted for the category of 1980s winners for the Golden Man Booker Prize, but understated novels of this type often end up being underrated and I’m pleased that it has been recognised by at least one set of judges.